Today our Mass began without the customary penitential rite in which we are invited to call to mind our sins before we celebrate the Sacred Mysteries of the Mass. Its omission is a way of drawing attention to the fact that this whole season of Lent that begins today is a “calling to mind of our sins” so that we might more worthily celebrate the Easter mysteries of our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. On Easter Sunday, we all will be called upon to renew our Baptismal Promises; Lent – if we observe it well by prayer, fasting and almsgiving – can help us understand and appreciate what that renewal of Baptismal promises really should mean for us.
To seek Baptism is to seek to become holy. To renew our baptismal promises means to recommit ourselves to that seeking for holiness which should be what our life in Christ means for us as Christians, as Catholics. If we seek holiness, as Pope John Paul II reminded us, then “it would be a contradiction for us to settle for a life of mediocrity marked by a minimalist ethic and a superficial religiosity”. During Lent, we pray more intensely, we fast, we give alms (that is, we share with those who can’t pay us back – namely, the poor, the needy, and the handicapped). By these special Lenten observances, we are to work on resolving “those contradictions” in our life that divert us from the pursuit of holiness.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul exhorts us: “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Be reconciled to God! St. Paul’s plead is for a personal reconciliation – but, speaking as an ambassador for Christ, he is also exhorting us to be reconciled, as he said, “through us”, that is through the representatives of the Church. Lent is a season of grace and salvation. And therefore, it is “the favorable time” for each Catholic to rediscover once again the Sacrament of Penance.
The Sacrament of Penance remains “the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sins committed after Baptism”. And since Lent is designed with the Renewal of Baptismal Promises in mind, a good confession should be a part of every Catholic’s Lenten observance. Through this sacrament, we can, in the words of John Paul II, rediscover Christ as “mysterium pietatis, the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself.” Last week, I wrote each priest in the Diocese of Orlando and I ask them to make this sacrament more readily available to our people this Lenten Season. I am happy to point out that here in this cathedral church confessions are heard every day before this Mass – and, our Shrine, Mary Queen of the Universe, provides a wonderful service by having a priest available for confessions every day from the time when the shrine opens in the morning till it closes in the late afternoon.
I remember in 1983, the Pope visited Haiti and there speaking truth to power – in front of that nation’s dictator -, he said: Things must change here. 23 years later, one could argue that nothing much has changed; for in order for things to change anywhere, we must change. We can complain about our family life, our careers, our parish, the state of our world. But, Lent reminds us in its call to conversion that the world we live in cannot be helped in any other way than by our repentance. And for this repentance, Jesus gives us three effective means: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
Now this penance and fasting is not just about external actions but rather an internal attitude. “Rend your hearts not your garments”, the prophet tells us. Our Lenten practices are not about trying to manipulate God, like the child who holds his breath until he gets his way with his parent. And, while Jesus does not want us to hide our light under a bushel basket, the point he wants us to understand is that all that we do should be to the greater glory of God. He is rather severe in his judgment of those who use religion to draw attention to themselves.
Early in the first millennium of Christianity, one of the Ancient Fathers of the Faith, St. John Chrysostom wrote: “I tell you it is possible to fast without fasting. Is this a riddle? By enjoying food, while having no taste for sin, that is a better kind of fasting.” In other words, as Christians we are first obliged to fast from sin. There is no point in missing dinner and then spending the evening destroying your neighbor with gossip. Starve your sins, not just your stomach. If we remember this then the spiritual works of Lent – more intensive prayer, fasting and other works of self-denial that traditionally is put under the rubric of almsgiving – can help us as we address those contradictions in our lives that keep us from seeking the holiness to which we have been called in Baptism.
Saying “No” to ourselves through some type of fasting during Lent, saying “No” to habits of sin by going to confession this Lent is all about helping us say “Yes” to God, “Yes” to his mercy and compassion, “Yes” to his plan for our lives.
Today, we begin our Lenten journey – a journey that leads us again to the conversion of our minds and hearts symbolized by our Renewal of Baptismal Promises on Easter Sunday. As we begin, we receive the ashes as a sign of our willingness to embrace the true way of life presented to us in the Gospels. And when we receive the ashes, we hear again the first words of Jesus spoken in Mark’s gospel: “Repent and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2006
St. James Cathedral
Bishop Thomas Wenski